Exploring Australia's Mornington Peninsula
Just south of Melbourne, Australia, the Mornington Peninsula is emerging as a haven for chefs, winemakers, and the urban refugees who love them. Emma Sloley goes in for a taste.
Spread out along a 25-mile stretch of the M3 highway is a series of four arresting, oversize public sculptures. One nearly stopped me in my tracks: the ghostly Hotel by artist Callum Morton, a sort of life-size faux resort.
As the road veers toward the coast, a series of seaside villages along Port Phillip Bay begins with the Victorian-era town of Sorrento—the longtime domain of off-duty politicians and Melbourne’s blue bloods—and culminates with Portsea, the last town on the western tip of the peninsula. The real action now is a bit inland, in the charming towns of Red Hill, Merricks, and Main Ridge. None of them is bigger than a thousand people, but the top-notch wineries and farm-to-table restaurants there could serve a vastly greater population.
I’d booked a room at Tussie Mussie, an upscale, seven-room country inn in Merricks North whose name translates loosely to “a posy of flowers” in old English vernacular. My suite, the Old Laundry, had heated bathroom floors and canvas window shades, giving it the feel of a chic safari tent rather than former housekeeping quarters. There was a basket of eggs and bread with my name on it, a gas grill on the terrace, and a kitchen garden where I was told to pick my own produce: heavy, golden squash; tiny, pungent chiles; and a cornucopia of fresh wild herbs. Breakfast here, I learned, would be DIY...and delicious. Doubles from $333.
When they founded their vineyard and olive grove in 2002, John and Wendy Mitchell were just two Francophiles with big dreams of creating a kind of Burgundy Down Under. Now they’re considered peninsula pioneers. The vineyard—on a ridge overlooking tidy rows of jade-green vines and monumental artworks acquired through the family’s annual sculpture prize—has a classic sylvan beauty but is also cutting-edge. At their acclaimed restaurant, I ordered a salad of slow-cooked organic eggs, fresh peas, and Grana Padano that perfectly summed up the area’s deceptively simple, Mediterranean-inspired cooking. And, of course, there was wine: a beautifully paired glass of the vineyard’s spicy but delicate Pinot Noir. Red Hill South; prix fixe menus from $53.
Aussies insist on good coffee, and here they find it at glossy newcomer Epicurean, a one-stop gourmet shop in a fancified tin shed. In front, there’s a bakery and larder; farther in is an atrium-like restaurant where you can linger over flat whites. (At lunchtime, stylish couples will descend for pizzas made in the wood-fired oven.) I found it all fabulously convivial and urbane in a slightly disorienting way—just when I was wondering if this was really rural Australia, the barista informed me of a tether out back, in case I’d come on horseback. Red Hill.
When I arrived at the Japanese-style Peninsula Hot Springs, an atmospheric mist still clung to the hilltops. From the blissful comfort of a 104-degree pool, I watched the fog disperse, revealing panoramic views of verdant hills and endless eucalyptus trees. Dozens of steaming thermal rock pools, set among wild grasses and aromatic plants, cascaded down the slope. I would have liked to try them all, but there was also a hammam, sauna, and spa, where I was unable to resist the Mala Mapi, a full-body mud mask and salt scrub based on Aboriginal herbalism. Fingal.
In the foothills of Red Hill, I stopped to chat with Zoe Crittenden and her dad, Garry, at Crittenden Estate. They offered me a taste of their Saludos, a fiercely acidic riff on Spanish Txakoli that’s emblematic of their offbeat style. “It’s just fun. We try not to overthink it,” said Zoe, who could have been talking about peninsula life in general. From there, I drove to Stonier, in Merricks, one of the area’s oldest wineries. Its focus on classic Pinot Noir is a perfect foil to Crittenden. I settled down at a communal farm table with a glass and a cheese plate; nearby, two rugged chaps were hard at work, knee-deep in vats of crushed grapes.
This celebrated young winery has views that could pass for Tuscany, but its ambitious, white-tablecloth restaurant puts a focus on everything Australian. The head chef, Stuart Bell, a Melbourne transplant and one of the peninsula’s rising stars, welcomed me with snapper from Port Phillip Bay, Flinders Island wallaby, and Red Hill cheeses. He explained that the winery’s name was a nod to the three founding families, whose vines were all 10 minutes away from one another by tractor. Every dish looked like edible artwork, painstakingly composed and singing with honest flavors. My favorite was cured kingfish with pickled beets. Main Ridge; tasting menus from $50.
Merrick’s most striking winery is Port Phillip Estate, a towering, sculptural building set on more than 170 acres of impeccably manicured grounds. Inside, a dramatic staircase leads to a subterranean bottling plant and wine library where I sat down for a glass of citrusy Red Hill Chardonnay, minimally filtered to preserve the flavors of the region’s volcanic terroir.
One of Mornington’s best dining rooms is located, oddly enough, in a strip mall. There, bespectacled chef-owner Andy Doughton preaches the gospel of local eating—he has his own personal grower for ingredients like Jerusalem artichokes, fennel pollen, and pine mushrooms. An appetizer of black rice crisps with misohorseradish mayo turned out to be irresistibly addictive. The follow-up, an heirloom tomato salad with red-vein sorrel, buffalo mozzarella, and a curious “sponge” made from grapevine ash, was by far the best thing I’ve ever eaten in a shopping center. Red Hill South; entrées $22–$27.
As I drove down the area’s country roads, the scenery was all pine trees and vine-covered hills, until suddenly, the sea emerged. I saw a sign for Point Leo Road, an artery leading to a beach of the same name. I’d heard it was beloved by Melbourne surfers, so on an impulse I turned toward it. Much to my surprise, the waves were relatively calmasItookaswiminthe shade of a weathered wooden lifeguard tower.
This French restaurant is a secret oasis hemmed in by pines, vineyards, and olive trees. The sun had left me starving, so my Port Phillip Bay snapper with zucchini ribbons and garlic purée was a welcome treat. Out back, there was a pétanque court next to fragrant lavender hedges, where I spontaneously joined a friendly couple for a languid game. Main Ridge; entrées from $28.
The sleepy oceanside town of Flinders was once the southernmost end of the telegraph line that spanned the continent, and it still has a bracing, end-of-the-world feeling to it. One ambitious restaurant, Terminus, at the trendy Flinders hotel, has put this venerable town on the modern map. But fine dining felt too high-minded for my Sunday mood. So I made my way to the Deck, also at the hotel, where the light-as-air fish-and-chips was accompanied by green beans with preserved lemon—a far cry from the greasy, newspaper-wrapped version I remember from childhood summers. Watching the sun going down over the ocean, I considered extending my getaway with a jaunt to the Yarra Valley (about an hour and a half away), but the road back to Melbourne would have to do. Entrées $17–$27.